Wilting, but willing

The foliage of the passion flower vine (Passiflora incarnata, flowering in August, below) has wilted. I can’t imagine that this vigorous native vine is in trouble, but I’ll be certain to give it a sip of water or two through the hot, dry weather that’s expected over the next week. I planted the passion flower five or six years ago, and every year there seems to be a different concern. It’s always slow to leaf, but a few years ago it didn’t leaf at all in the spring. I figured it was a goner, but it emerged from the ground late in July, and flowered in August.

Last year the passion flower grew and flowered exuberantly, but it began to sprout from roots in the middle of patches of salvia and toad lily six feet away, and between stones in the patio. The stray sprouts are easily plucked out, and they haven’t diminished the vigor of the main part of the vine that reached the top of its support a month earlier this year.  I expect that the wilting is temporary, but I’ll watch out for it over the next week.

This spring I planted two other cold hardy passion vines, and starting from a small container of roots they won’t grow as quickly as the more established plant, but they’re doing fine so far. I expect that they’ll get a few flowers in another month, and then I’ll be able to tell from the flower what it is that I ordered. I suppose that it’s sad that I don’t keep proper records of what I’ve planted, but I’ll figure it out eventually if it’s of any matter. In any case, I think that one of the vines is a yellow (I think Passiflora lutea) and the other is (maybe) white, but I’ll see soon enough. Many passion vines are native to the area, though I’ve never seen one in its native setting. Bumblebees seem to particularly enjoy them, and the flowers are quite wonderful.

I usually plant something and never pay another moment’s attention until it begins to blooms, but with a recent lack of rain and the onset of summer temperatures I’ll have to watch out for a few things I planted this spring. Yesterday I noticed that part of one of the Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria, above) I planted has disappeared. It’s not unusual for a section of a Peruvian lily to turn brown after flowering, and they’re quite difficult to handle without damaging, but with the ground nearby cracking from the lack of moisture this seems likely to be the problem. 

The mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, above) have been at peak bloom for several weeks, and the lack of ground moisture has caused the flowers to shrivel a bit. If we get some rain in the next week they’ll perk up, but if not, the flowers will quickly fade. Hydrangeas regularly wilt in the heat of the afternoon sun in the summer months, and usually they bounce back late in the evening. They prefer consistent moisture, but they survive nicely in my non-irrigated garden.

I don’t make a habit of watering plants through the summer, and I’ve found that once they’re established, most plants are more tolerant of dry soil than you expect. Most often I water new plants a time or two, or if I’m planting in the spring when there’s some soil moisture I might not water at all. Though I have no plans to water, I don’t take special care to plant drought tolerant plants. Most often (usually, sometimes?) I plant the right plant in the right place, but they’re more forgiving than you expect, so I rarely lose a plant that’s been neglected.

Most plants in the garden look fine, not at all wilted, but the draining of color from vigorous,  lush foliage is plain to see. The only plants that are happy in this severe heat and humidity are tropicals, and now is the time that elephant ears and bananas begin to take off. I expect everything else will somehow survive until rain and cooler temperatures arrive.


Ready for summer

Over the weekend I noticed that coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea, below) in the neighborhood are flowering, and it hadn’t occurred to me until now that they’ve disappeared from my garden. There are a number of reasons. I’ve planted a handful of newly introduced coneflowers over the past five or six years, and many gardeners have found these to be marvelous in flower, but not dependably sturdy. My garden has become increasingly shaded over the years, and the soil in much of the sunny rear garden tends to be damp. Coneflowers prefer sunny and dry, and that’s not my garden, so it’s not too surprising that the less than hardy plants have failed.

The native purple coneflower is quite tough, but an early planting in my garden was lost along with equally sun loving and drought tolerant Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldstrum’, below) when the front was overtaken by shade. For several years seedlings popped up after the original plants faded, but eventually they failed and now the area is home to hostas and hellebores. In less than favorable conditions even the toughest of plants will fail, but some “improved” varieties don’t stand a chance even when soil and sunlight are ideal. 

I’ve planted a handful of coral bells (Heuchera, below) in recent years, and these have proven dependable so long as they are not planted in the garden’s dampest soil. In full sun the red leafed varieties fade a bit by early summer, but given a few hours of afternoon shade they show no ill effects. Most coral bells have been planted in areas with reasonably good soil (not root infested dry shade) and only a few hours of sun, and these are quite happy until the driest days of summer when they need an occasional sip of water to perk them up. Most coral bell flowers are not significant, but the colorful mounding foliage is splendid.

Spring blooming salvias have flourished in the garden for years, but I’ve considered ‘Black and Blue’ salvia (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’, below) to be an annual with marginal cold hardiness. But, with the extraordinarily warm recent winters ‘Black and Blue’ has survived, and now semi woody stems poke out from beneath a wide spreading paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). ‘Black and Blue’ continues to bloom through the heat of summer without a care, and I suspect that now that it’s established the salvia will be able to survive a normal winter, if such a thing were to happen.

My wife has taken to prowling about the garden in recent weeks, and she mentioned that the native mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginium) was straying a bit past its boundaries, endangering a small columnar boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Graham Blandy’) and a wide spreading spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’). In its third or fourth year in the garden the spread this spring has surprised me. I don’t know if it’s spreading by rhizomes or seed (or both), but it’s vigorous enough to require some attention a time or two through the spring. Roots of the mountain mint that have spread too far are easily plucked, but a month ago I realized that a hummingbird mint (Agastache, below) was near enough that it would inevitably be overwhelmed, so it was moved out of harm’s way. It pouted and wilted for a few days, but quickly revived, and despite the recent heat it appears the move will be successful.

This spring there have been more than a few Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’. below) seedlings pop up in the dry, lightly shaded ground beside the garden’s largest pond. Only a few have required weeding out, and where there is sufficient space I expect these will spread into full clumps in a few years.  The daisies are well mannered, with tight clumps that don’t stray into space intended for neighboring plants, and they flower through much of the summer without any care at all. Despite its tall, slender stems ‘Becky’ does not require staking, and it tolerates sun and a few hours of shade without stems stretching or any notable difference in flowering.

Long overdue

Twenty some years ago I planted three columnar hornbeams and variegated bamboo in the spaces between the trees to screen the neighbor’s property. You’d think I’d know better. I blame it on youthful enthusiasm, but when youth turned to middle age (hopefully I’m still “middle” and not plain old) the bamboo has run amok.

Why did I plant bamboo? A running bamboo? Well, it’s a long story, but the short of it is that I liked the white striped foliage (below), and I was deluded enough to be fooled by a description that implied that this variegated bamboo was a less aggressive runner. I suppose it is slightly less vigorous than bamboos that consume entire neighborhoods, but this one has long  been determined to take over a corner of the garden. A big corner, and its spread has been slowed only by the shading of the grouping of large hornbeams and a wide spreading golden rain tree.

My efforts to pull new shoots that race across to other parts of the garden have been marginally successful, but each year the bamboo spreads a bit further despite my labor. The lower branches of a once splendid Colorado blue spruce have disappeared, and if I could push close enough to check I’m quite certain that there are no needles below the eight foot height of the tallest bamboo shoots.

For whatever reason now, two of three hornbeams have died. My wife blames the bamboo for killing them, but she blames the bamboo for everything. I don’t have a clue why they died, but in the absence of any other evidence I choose not to accept my wife’s explanation.

With a thick grove of bamboo surrounding the dead hornbeams there is  no way to get in to cut them down except to chop a path. While I was traveling a week ago my wife cleared some of the bamboo from the edge of the driveway, and of course she butchered them so it looks horrible. So, the time seems right to solve this problem and cut down the entire bamboo grove. It had to happen eventually, but I was hoping to die first and pass the chore along to my heirs. Taking care of it now will give access to remove the dead hornbeams, and perhaps I’ll save a few hours of labor every spring chopping out bamboo shoots that pop up.

I’m certain that bamboo will sprout in every direction next spring since I’m not digging out the roots. I’m cutting the clumps as close to the ground as possible, and probably will dig out the roots of a few thick clumps that border the driveway, but most of the roots will stay because it’s a huge task to remove them. There’s no doubt that I’ll have to chop out emerging shoots for another year, and perhaps two, but that’s manageable, and eventually the bamboo will lose vigor without any foliage and the roots will die.

Once the bamboo is gone I’m afraid the blue spruce will look hideous and it will probably have to go, so this area of the garden bordering the driveway will be short two thirty foot hornbeams, a twenty foot tall spruce, and several hundred square feet of eight foot tall bamboo. The thought of losing these established plants is depressing, but I’m encouraged that it opens an area for new plants. Once everything is cleared out I’ll figure out how to replant the area, but I’m thinking there might be space enough for another Japanese maple, and certainly a holly or two. Despite the removal of the trees the area will still be partially shaded, so I’m looking forward to planting a few more hostas and hellebores, maybe a hydrangea or two, and it won’t take long until the space is full again.

I’ve only just begun the removal at this point, and with hot days forecast for the next few early days of summer, I’m not looking forward to the task. I’m not so young anymore, so if you don’t hear from me again you’re likely to find my body in the middle of the bamboo, chainsaw in hand.

Unintended pruning

A few weeks ago I noticed the toad lilies (Tricyrtis, flowering in September, below) were getting a bit taller than I prefer, though they were not at all leggy. Some years I’ve pruned them to be shorter and more compact, and other times I’ve let them grow. If left unpruned they will bloom a few weeks earlier, and they are little less likely to flop in late summer.

This year several will flower later, though my pruners haven’t left the garage. Deer have nipped them back a bit, thankfully just to the point that I would have cut them. I realized when I saw the chewed stems that I was tardy in spraying deer repellent this month. In past years my wife has reminded me to spray on the first weekend of every month, but I suppose she has begun to take for granted that I’ll remember. Of course, this was a mistake, and fortunately there has been little damage except for the minor pruning of the toad lilies and a few stray branches on lacecap hydrangeas, but barely enough to notice in any case.

Though the deer repellent is effective through repeated rains, many shrubs and perennials grow quickly enough in spring that new foliage is not protected, and this is what the deer ate on the toad lilies and hydrangeas. I wasn’t certain until now that deer would bother toad lilies, but many plants I spray regardless. I know that deer favor hosta and daylily, but will they eat fragrant leafed salvias and agastache? I don’t know, but it’s easy enough to spray a few extra plants rather than risk injury.

My wife has cut a number of flowers from the blue hydrangeas (Hydrangea macropylla ‘Penny Mac’, above) to bring indoors, but the first batch wilted and withered quickly. She has cut blooms in past years with success, but something was done differently this time. If cut properly the flowers last for weeks, and even after drying they remain ornamental. There are plenty of flowers on the hydrangeas, so I don’t mind that a few handfuls are cut, but I don’t really care for cut flowers brought indoors. I would much rather stroll through the garden to enjoy them.

The mophead hydrangeas are quite wonderful, but in recent years I’ve taken more of a liking to the various lacecap hydrangeas in the garden. The flowers of lacecaps are somewhat smaller and flatter then the mopheads, but their colors are often more subtly beautiful. For several years after planting the lacecap ‘Lady in Red’ (above) I was quite disappointed, and considered pulling it out to replace with a more floriferous cultivar. But, my patience (really laziness) was rewarded with dozens (or hundreds) of blooms set against the hydrangeas’ dark foliage. ‘Lady in Red’ was promoted heavily when introduced, but I believe it was somewhat of a flop since it is rarely seen in garden centers today. To see it in my garden from late May through June many gardeners would be encouraged to plant one, but fortunately there are many other fine choices commonly available.

I have planted several of the Endless Summer hydrangea varieties, and I’ve not been so impressed with some as I’ve been with the original blue flowered, reblooming mophead. The white ‘Blushing Bride’ (above) is a nice, white flowered mophead, but its reblooming is scant and disappointing. The lacecap ‘Twist N ‘Shout’ (below) has progressed much as ‘Lady in Red’, with few blooms the first few years, but more as the shrub ages. Even when there are few flowers, they are larger than the typical lacecap’s, and I’m satisfied to have planted ‘Twist N ‘Shout’ with the promise that one day it will be more floriferous.   

In search of Japanese maples

I’ve been visiting tree and shrub growing nurseries across the country to buy plants for nearly thirty-five years. In the early years my traveling partner and I kept a close watch for Japanese maples as we traveled through neighborhoods visiting nurseries just outside Portland, Oregon (the Japanese maple growing capital of the U.S.). Here were small lots and homes mixed with five and ten acre properties, and occasionally we’d see a small field planted with red leafed maples from a distance. We’d screech to a halt to knock on the front door of the nearest house to see who owned the trees, and to inquire if they were for sale. Usually they were already spoken for.

Those were the days (though not especially good days for a garden center buyer), when Japanese maples were grown in limited quantities, and were parceled out to the highest bidder. Selection was usually limited to a few weeping varieties (Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’ and ‘Everred’) and the upright growing ‘Bloodgood’ (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’) because nurseries sold everything they grew and had no incentive to offer anything out of the ordinary. I saw other types of Japanese maples only in arboretums and botanic gardens, and didn’t dare dream that I could own even a small collection beyond the common varieties.

As gardening demand increased in recent years a market developed for slow growing dwarf conifers and unusual types of Japanese maples, though the ten or fifteen varieties introduced into commerce are still only a fraction of the thousands of known Japanese maples. A few nurseries now specialize in growing a wider range of trees, with yellow,  red, green, and variegated leaves (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, above) of assorted shapes and sizes, and dwarf forms (Acer palmatum ‘Shaina’, below) that will take years to rise above five feet tall.

Over the past ten years I’ve looked for unique Japanese maples that I can add to my garden, and I’ve added a few handfuls that are slightly less than common. There are now more than twenty Japanese maple cultivars in the garden (twenty two or twenty three, maybe twenty four, I’ve lost count), and there are two or three of several so there are thirty maples in the garden (give or take a couple).

Most of these aren’t rare, but many are a bit out of the ordinary. While accumulating this small collection I’ve been determined not to break the bank, and several Japanese maples are leftovers, or trees with damaged trunks and permanent scars that make a tree unsaleable except to a serious bargain hunter. Of all the trees I’ve planted with broken root balls and gashed bark, withered foliage, and dead branches, I’ve never had a single Japanese maple fail to survive, and most recover from serious injury much more quickly than I could imagine.

I’ve no complaint with the common Japanese maples available in every garden center and box store. These are wonderful trees that have earned their popularity, but occasionally the venturesome gardener reaches outside the ordinary, and there are many Japanese maples that are quite wonderful.

While red leafed maples are most common, there are splendid green leafed varieties. I’ve never been overly impressed with the Coral Bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sangu-kaku’, above) with fiery red young branches that shine in winter, though this variety is quite popular. The foliage is a dull green and unremarkable. I won’t be digging the large tree in my garden out any time soon, but there are others that I prefer. The Lion’s Head maple (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigarshiri’, below) has oddly crinkled foliage, and I liked the first one I planted enough to plant another five years later. The slow growing trees are now taller than ten feet with an upright branching habit and leaves clustered in bunches at the branch tips.

I’ve planted several Japanese maples with variegated foliage with varying combinations of white, green, and pink, and for years I lusted to find a yellow leafed Golden Full Moon maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, below) until finding a lone six foot tree left behind in a field of smaller maples because its trunk had been damaged by rabbits or some other hungry beast. I had considered purchasing a smaller tree by mail order for years, but reconsidered every time when I thought about its slow growth. The scar on the trunk has still not healed completely, but the Golden Full Moon maple is growing vigorously, slightly taller and wider each year.

Unfortunately, I’ve nearly run out of space, so there is limited space to jam another Japanese maple into the garden. These splendid trees deserve a space where they can be fully enjoyed, and so even as I shoehorn other plants into the tiniest spaces, care is taken that the Japanese maples have ample space to spread.

Are five ponds too many?

This spring the Japanese irises planted in the shallows of the swimming pond (below) seem to have doubled in size. I know that there is limited room in the gravel filled crevices between boulders that edge the pond, and those spaces have been filled for a few years, but the irises are more robust and floriferous this year.

Most years one variety of iris flowers, then fades as another begins to bloom, and the succession results in flowers surrounding the pond for a month. This spring all of the Japanese irises except ‘Lion King’ (Iris ensata ‘Lion King’, below) flowered within days of the others, and then of course they faded in the next week. So, the wonder of having irises blooming for four weeks has been replaced by one marvelous week, and then another week with more scattered flowers from ‘Lion King’.

The irises flowering coincided with several hydrangeas (below) that are perched just above the pond’s waterfall, so for one week in late May into early June there are arguably too many blue flowers bordering the pond. I don’t say that I’d argue that point. The irises and hydrangeas are nearly perfect. I’d prefer if the irises would remain in flower another week or two longer, though any longer and they would be taken for granted and the week or two in the spring would not seem quite so extraordinary.

Several weeks ago there was a minor outbreak of string algae in the pond’s shallow gravel filter area, so I waded through the yellow flag irises and variegated cattails to remove as much as I could by hand. Several large bucket fulls were added to the compost heap, and after removing that algae I added a dose of barley straw extract that will help to control further problems. The fifteen minutes wading in the pond removing the algae was the only maintenance time spent on any of the garden’s five ponds over the past two months.

The koi and goldfish have been feeding enthusiastically and several are getting some size to them, though I don’t feed regularly enough to grow them into the monsters that I’ve seen in other ponds. I haven’t seen any babies yet this spring, but sometimes I don’t notice them until later in the summer when they’ve grown a bit. There’s no practical way to count fish in a fifteen hundred square foot pond, even though the pond’s water is perfectly clear.

The original ten koi dropped down to five shortly after they were introduced to the pond, then two goldfish were transferred to the large pond from a smaller one. Over the past five or six years baby koi and goldfish have increased the pond’s population to sixty or seventy by my best guess, and there could be more. I feed them whenever it occurs to me, though now I leave a bucket of feed by the pond so I feed them somewhat more regularly.

Since I’ve had problems in the past with herons there are no fish in the garden’s four other ponds that are shallower than the swimming pond. I see the herons flying around the neighborhood’s farm ponds occasionally, so I know they’re still around. I’ve no reason to feed them, so I won’t have fish in the smaller ponds until the day when the swimming pond is overpopulated and some must be moved.

I’ve had to trim some of the ferns and the green leafed Japanese maple that arches over the oldest of the ponds, but otherwise there is little labor involved in maintaining the ponds after a quick spring cleaning. The ponds must be covered with netting in late October to keep out leaves from the garden and neighboring forest, but sometimes I’m tardy and have to scoop them out before they foul the water. A few times a year I’ll need to add a bit of water to top off the ponds if evaporation gets ahead of rainfall, but this doesn’t amount to much.

I’ve known people who fool endlessly with their ponds, but if properly constructed and filtered there should be little work for most of the year. Pond manuals suggest regular cleaning of pumps and filters, but I’ve seen no advantage to messing with these things, and I’ve rarely experienced a problem. Pumps run flawlessly for five years or longer without any fiddling on my part, and several of the ponds’ pumps have endured for ten years or more.

There is unquestionably considerable expense in constructing a pond (or five), and five pumps will consume a recognizable sum of electricity if you’re watching your pennies. I prefer to ignore this expense. My enjoyment is far more valuable. Five ponds are not required, and I cannot claim that five are that many times more enjoyable than one, but for this garden five ponds is just right, and I would not be without even one.

Cure for the common flop

For whatever reason the oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, below) have decided to explode in growth this spring (in fact, all hydrangeas have grown remarkably). A few were munched by deer in early autumn when I mistakenly decided that it was late enough in the season not to have to spray a repellent, but now the damage has covered over completely. One oakleaf that overhangs the patio by the swimming pond was not bothered by deer, but now I’ve had to prune it so that it doesn’t overwhelm the marvelous variegated leaf caryopteris that pokes out from under it. This arrangement has worked out for years, but now the hydrangea is growing too quickly, and the branches are not as rigid as usual, so they flopped over the caryopteris.

I hate to cut off blooms, but the caryopteris (Caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’, below) was endangered, and the hydrangea has many more. There is no science to pruning the oakleaf hydrangea except to prune individual branches just above another branch. Four or five branches had flopped onto the caryopteris, so I lifted each before pruning to see how much needed to be chopped to properly expose the variegated shrub beneath. Since the hydrangea branches had flopped over top, the soft wooded caryopteris was growing almost prostrate, but now that things have been opened up I expect it will pop up more upright.

I have considerable experience chopping back plants that flop over their neighbors, or over the garden’s stone paths. This is a consequence of planting too many plants too close, and occasionally a plant is lost in the shuffle as one overwhelms another. A few days ago I rescued a variegated brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, below) that had disappeared under a suddenly vigorous patch of sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis). I thought of the brunnera a time or two through the spring when I walked past the green leafed variety at the other end of the garden, but my attention span lasts no more than three or four steps, so I didn’t gave it a thought when I was in the vicinity of the missing brunnera. Except once, I pulled the sweetbox back, and there was the variegated brunnera, half the size it was a year ago, and not visible at all from beneath the sweetbox. But, my pruners and trowel were not handy, so three steps later …… gone and forgotten.

Fortunately, for whatever reason I thought again of the brunnera, and kept focused long enough to wander back up to the garage for a trowel. There was no sense in pruning the sweetbox. Though it starts slowly enough that the gardener is ready to give up and pluck it out after a few years, in another year or two it begins to grow more exuberantly, and now it regularly pushes up in joints between the large path stone slabs. If the sweetbox was pruned today it would be back by year’s end, and eventually I will not pay proper attention and the brunnera will be lost forever. So, the better plan is to move the brunnera to a less crowded spot, and there is a perfectly suited location ten feet away perched just above the shaded stream. There’s a large leafed hosta a few feet away that has recently been transplanted, but it will be several years before there’s trouble again, so the brunnera is scooped out from under the sweetbox, and in a few moments it’s in its new home. A handful or two of water is dipped from the stream, and the problem is solved.

My wife has become quite handy with her pruners, which were purchased through some outfit that makes kitchen knives, and were horribly overpriced. The pruners are small and woefully inadequate for all but the softest wood, but my wife has become quite proficient at chopping back hostas, ferns, and nandina branches that arch over the garden paths. Since she paid a pretty penny for the pruners my wife refuses to use any of the larger and sturdier pruners that I have, and after she has butchered a graceful Ostrich fern I often threaten to dispose of the pruners to forever end her meddlesome ways.

Usually, whatever has been chopped grows back quickly, so the best advice is to avoid the problem and plant with adequate spacing from the start. Of course, there is no set and consistent distance that plants be placed apart from each other or from paths. Plants grow to varying sizes, and conditions dictate that one might grow much larger or smaller than is typical in the right or wrong situation. If this sounds too complicated to bother with, you’re right on track. I agree, and it’s best not to bother with worrying about such things. Just plant. If there’s a problem you can move most any plant later, or prune the offending branches, and all is well.